Spacious and bright, the lobby of the new Royal Alberta Museum is designed to be welcoming for visitors. Image: DIALOG

The new Royal Alberta Museum shines a light on its inner workings

Designing a museum is not an easy task. Just ask Donna Clare, who would be the first to admit the difficulty in creating a welcoming space that can also protect a collection of thousands of historic—and, in some cases, priceless—objects. The public loves wide-open spaces, lots of light and plenty of glass. But what do 100-year-old cultural artifacts love?

“The conservation practice is to put them in a dark room,” Clare says.

You can see how this might be a problem.

Clare and her colleagues are not easily discouraged, though. As a principal at DIALOG, she leads a team of about 25—more once the project ramps up—on laying out a new Royal Alberta Museum (RAM) that can serve the needs of both the public and the collection. DIALOG, alongside Lundholm Associates Architects and Ledcor Construction, forms the core of a design-build team that is working to complete the $340-million project by 2016.

In a presentation, the design team spells out its goals for the new building: “demystify the museum for the public, providing views and access into the working museum,” while also “creating a museum that is a central social setting.” Lofty goals, to be sure, and a stark contrast to the current building, which stands like a stone-faced behemoth—more imposing than inviting.

Even the location of the old museum seems to conspire against its role as Alberta’s capital museum. Located just west of Edmonton’s gallery district on 124 Avenue, the current museum site is handsomely appointed—and easily overlooked. The building feels like a wayward straggler from the city’s downtown core, forced to struggle on its own as a destination rather than draw energy (and crowds) from nearby amenities.

That will change with the new location, set to take the place of the old downtown post office building at 99 Street and 103A Avenue. The move will place the Royal Alberta Museum a few blocks away from the city centre, and give it a position of pride in the city’s arts district, where it will rub shoulders with other key cultural institutions like the Winspear Centre, the Citadel Theatre, the Art Gallery of Alberta and Stanley A. Milner Library.

A new vision

When asked to distinguish the new building from its predecessor, Clare is quick to cite its openness and accessibility.

“We’ve introduced glass,” she says. “A lot of parts of the museum can’t have any glass because daylight is damaging to the artifacts, but the public spaces will have a lot of connection to the site and to the city.”

The crucial link between inside and outside will be the building’s lobby—a spacious, glass-enclosed area that reaches 12 metres in height, complete with a large multimedia wall to entice pedestrians into entering and exploring the museum. This public gathering space will look out upon the park area in front of the museum, as well as Sir Winston Churchill Square farther down the road.

Fret patterns will be used on the glass as well, offering something more distinctive than a typical curtain wall. Clare says this has the benefit of “allowing views, but cutting down on the amount of glare that you get from glass.

“It also allows us to potentially introduce some patterning that is integrating natural patterns into the fabric of the building,” she adds. “We’re trying to embed stories of Alberta right into the very skin of the building, so we’ve got a lot of perforated metals that we’re also using.”
These patterns will appear not only on the glass, but will also be used to clad the building in metal marked with iconic Alberta imagery.

“We’re creating sun shades with a perforated pattern that is like the canopy of an aspen tree,” she says. “We have some images of the way that ice breaks up on rivers in spring.”

Clare is also keen on including some form of renewable energy in the project, with wind turbines, earth tubes and piezoelectricity all possibilities. Solar windows, which would allow light in while generating solar photovoltaic power, are also being explored as an option.

The museum is currently weighing whether or not it could generate enough electricity to make the costly windows economical. “We’re not across the finish line on that one yet,” she admits.

Open concept

The plan to open up the museum is not solely centred on glass walls and large spaces. By Clare’s count, the museum is home to 11 million objects and artifacts, most of which are hidden away from the public eye on the curatorial side of the museum. The new RAM would change that.

“We’ve brought forward some of the back-of-house functions you don’t normally get to see,” she says. “There’s a conservation lab and a science lab that are viewable from the main lobby space, so you can actually see the curators working on restoring artifacts.”

Guided tours would allow the public to get a first-hand look at the normally hidden curatorial and restoration areas necessary to keep any museum functioning—the “working heart” of the building, as the design team describes it. And while the interaction between the public and the museum staff would naturally be limited during a tour, there will still be other opportunities for visitors to talk to curators, Clare says.

This will happen in an “information zone,” where experts will examine objects brought in by the public, whether it be a leaf from an unknown tree or an arrowhead discovered on a hike. “If you find a shell in your backyard and you don’t know what it is, then you can take it into the museum and meet with a curator who’s an expert in that area and they can help you identify what it is,” she says.

Of course, it would be cruel to entice the public with such an expanded view of the museum while hiding everything behind an admission gate. The RAM is countering that problem by leaving several sections of the museum entirely free to the public.

“They really want the museum to be part of the everyday life of Edmonton and people visiting Edmonton, so in that way it’s much more accessible than the existing building is,” Clare says.

Discussions are currently underway to include the Manitou Stone in one of the free galleries, providing public access to an object held sacred by many aboriginal groups. The second free area would be a community gallery, which could house exhibits organized by various community groups. Clare says that objects from the museum itself could be displayed in this gallery, but only if they are robust enough to be moved out of the more stringently climate-controlled galleries inside.

Again, everything comes down to balancing the public’s need for access with the preservation of the museum collection. “How do you make a place that’s open and engaging to the visitor and at the same time protect the artifacts and objects?” she asks.

Such is the dilemma of the museum designer. The building needs to be a fortress, protecting the artifacts from the marauding hordes of time and climate. But if it is to be a fortress, it must be an invisible one, and that’s where glass comes in. By helping the building fade into the background, glass allows the RAM to take centre stage at long last—and that’s exactly how it should be, Clare says.

“Your experience of going to a museum is the stories inside the building,” she says. “To a certain extent, we’d like some of those stories to spill out into the street.”

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